Judging himself: Wing reflects on careerIn his 25 years as Pierce County judge, Robert Wing has learned a few things, but he doesn't think he has changed much.
By: Judy Wiff, The Republican Eagle
In his 25 years as Pierce County judge, Robert Wing has learned a few things, but he doesn't think he has changed much.
"For some people, being a judge is their identity," Wing said. "But that's not who I am."
At age 63, Wing's ready to step down from the bench and focus on the roles he values more: husband, father, friend and, soon, grandfather.
So while his term won't officially end for three months, Wing will retire April 30.
"I'm ready for something else," said Wing firmly. "I'm ready to be something else."
Among the things he has learned are that jail works, that one way to lighten a caseload is to schedule a full court calendar, and that most of the people charged with offenses are not evil.
Wing, who grew up in Milwaukee, did his undergraduate work there, and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969. He served two years, mostly in Korea, before enrolling in law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As he finished law school, a notice in the placement office indicating that Pierce County was holding an election for district attorney caught his attention.
He moved here, won the seat and stayed. After four years as DA, Wing went into private practice with the intention of running for judge when William McEwen retired.
"I thought it would be wise to have a broad background (in the law)," said Wing of his intent. The opportunity to serve as judge came sooner than he expected when McEwen became incapacitated.
Gov. Tony Earl appointed Wing to fill the vacancy. He was sworn in Jan. 2, 1985, finished out McEwen's term and then ran for election. He has been re-elected every six years since.
Wing predicted that, as it was for him, presiding over a courtroom for the first few times will be a "weird experience" for judge-elect Joe Boles.
"It's quite something to get used to," he said, recalling his response to everyone in the courtroom standing when he entered the room.
"There's no training per se before you become judge," Wing said. "They give you education, but really your training to be judge is the experience you have as an attorney."
Preparation and reading the cases ahead of time are vital, he said. "You can't simply walk up to the bench and say, 'Let's hear what you have to say.'"
As a novice judge he realized some of the attorneys he faced, especially in civil cases, had focused on certain areas of the law and knew more about those than he did. He asked them to flesh out their briefs to help educate him.
In a growing, one-judge county, the caseload was heavy even in his early years as judge, Wing said. Attorneys had gotten used to dragging things out.
To change that, he scheduled tight court calendars and nearly always denied continuances.
Once attorneys changed their mindset to know that delays would be rare, they would either settle before trial or be prepared at trial, Wing said.
Knowing that would filter out the weaker cases, his assistants packed his calendar full. If 10 cases were scheduled for the same day, most would settle ahead of time, leaving the judge with a manageable number but not with nothing.
The first year he had 66 jury trials. The next year that dropped to 40. In 2009 only 19 jury trials were held in the county.
No more rides home
Two of the biggest shifts he said he's seen are the attitudes toward drunken driving and domestic abuse.
For a long time the Wisconsin standard for drunken driving was a blood alcohol level of .15, nearly twice the level it is now. It wasn't unusual for OWI cases to go to a jury and for jurors to let the offender off, Wing said.
"You'd get a 50 percent conviction rate," he said.
And that was in the cases where an arrest was made, Wing said. Often after stopping a drunken driver police simply would give the offender a ride home.
"That's certainly unconscionable now," Wing said. "There's no one who gets in the back of that (squad) car who doesn't get taken to jail."
While too often in the criminal justice system "it's a win/lose situation," Wing doesn't believe that has to be the case with drunken driving.
Attorneys learned he would hand out lighter sentences to people guilty of intoxicated driving if they get into treatment before sentencing. Given the alternatives of treatment or more time in jail, most people choose treatment.
Treatment can work and then both the offender and the public win, Wing said. Not only are there fewer drinking drivers on the road, but the public saves money on jails and fewer people die in intoxicant-related accidents.
There aren't many opportunities in the criminal justice system to affect change, he said, but also believes his get-into-treatment approach to drunken driving works and that his lead will be followed in other communities.
As for domestic abuse, when he was DA, it wasn't uncommon for police to simply sweep it under the rug.
"They treated it as a family matter," the judge said. Now officers make an arrest if there is any evidence of violence. Offenders are ordered to attend anger-management sessions and treatment for alcohol abuse.
To those who say jail isn't the answer -- for drunken driving, domestic abuse or other crimes -- Wing says they're wrong.
"Jail is an effective consequence to get people to behave properly," he said.
Electronic monitoring isn't much of a deterrent, in his view, because it neither stigmatizes nor frightens the offender. The person being monitored can go about his business, even just sitting at home watching television.
"Jail makes them think twice. Electronic monitoring doesn't," he said.
He admits he has no patience with defendants who say they accept responsibility and think thatís enough.
"Accepting responsibility and taking responsibility is not the same thing," said Wing, insisting that consequences flow from being responsible for criminal behavior.
Is he a tough judge?
"If tough means you go past your natural sympathy to protect the public, that's fine," Wing said. "But if you impose a heavy sentence just because you can, then you're not a tough judge, you're a bully."
Most of the people he sees are ordinary people who have used bad judgment, Wing said, explaining that his years on the bench haven't hardened him.
"I don't have a bad view of human nature," he said. "I realize that what I see in the courtroom is a very narrow group of people -- most people are doggone good people."
He said the most rewarding part of his job is approving adoptions, knowing that a child who has had a rough start is going to a good family.
Wing also enjoys the festiveness of officiating at weddings. Then he grinned and admitted that pleasure is "somewhat tempered by the fact that you know most of those marriages aren't going to last."
Another reward, he said, is helping a person who is acting as his or her own attorney in court.
"The only thing they've got going for them is they're right," he said. "And just being right is enough - that's kind of neat."
Wing said he has accomplished some goals in his 25 years, including implementing drug court and helping curb drunken driving offenses by encouraging treatment. There are others, including developing a comprehensive community service program, yet to do.
"I got the pile whittled down," he concluded, adding that he hopes Judge Joe Boles can build on that.
But the greatest achievements, Wing said, are not in the courtroom. He's proudest of his daughters: Julia, who works in marketing for General Mills, and Alison, who is a first-year resident at the University of Minnesota Hospital.
"That's what your legacy is," Wing said. "The kind of kids you brought into the world and the kind of people you helped them to be."
He had a concluding message for Pierce County residents.
"When I became judge I thought America's system of justice was the best system of justice in the world, and after 25 years, I haven't changed my opinion."
He added that he hopes he has helped keep it that way.